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Shivkumar Sharma - Elder Statesman of Indian Music

Felicitation by Yogendra
(January 2013)

With his striking, now white-gray Afro and his polished eloquence Shivkumar Sharma is one of the biggest pop stars of Indian classical music today, celebrated virtuoso and something of an elder statesman at the same time. Although his raga performances hardly offer anything new to the connoisseur, he still plays at the highest artistic level and is a sought-after crowd-puller at large festivals. His philosophical statements in interviews, documentaries and book prefaces convey a degree of sophistication that is rare in Indian musicians. Thanks to his somewhat eccentric but always elegant looks he is a rewarding visual for press and television. His path to the elite of Indian music, however, was remarkably difficult and unusual.

Shivkumar Sharma was born the son of classical singer Uma Dutt Sharma in Jammu in 1938. He learnt vocal and tabla from his father from early childhood. The santoor had been unheard of in India outside the Kashmir valley at that time; it was just a local folk instrument. Hence Shivkumar was taken by surprise when his father suggested him to take up the santoor as his main instrument. It seemed unsuitable for classical Indian music, because it can neither maintain a constant note nor can it produce smooth transitions and microtonal shades between notes. However, Shivkumar managed to overcome these structural limitations with new playing techniques. With subtle rolls of the mallets he blurred the individual strokes and created the impression of standing notes and with sliding the mallets across the strings he created the suggestion of glissando transitions. Moreover he reduced the strings per note from four to three to reduce sustain and gain more clarity and he increased the tonal range for greater possibilities of expression. And by using intricate rhythm patterns and fast runs he highlighted the strengths of the santoor. Thanks to all these innovations and modifiations he gradually overcame the resistence of conservative critics in course of time since his maiden concert in Mumbai in 1955.

The breakthrough came in 1967 with the album "Call of the Valley", a collaboration with flute player Hariprasad Chaurasia and guitarist Brij Bhushan Kabra - and one of the best selling records of Indian classical music until today. In 1968, 1973 and 1974, Ravi Shankar took him on tours to the US and Europe. This gave him additional international recognition. In the 1980s, Shivkumar had a kind of parallel career as composer for the Indian film industry in the duo "Shiv-Hari" together with Hariprasad Chaurasia. Starting with "Silsila" in 1981, they created the music for several blockbusters of legendary director and producer Yash Chopra and became known to a mass audience. However, the duo stopped working for Bollywood in 1993 with "Darr" in order to focus on the raga tradition again. Its spiritual depth ultimately meant much more to Shivkumar than money and glamour.

In his long career Shivkumar Sharma has published more than 100 recordings. In 1986 he received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for his work, in 1991 the Padma Shri and in 2001 the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian Indian state medal. He helped one of his three sons, Rahul, to become a successful santoor virtuoso, too. His mission of establishing santoor as a classical solo instrument has been truely successful. On January 13th, Shivkumar turned 75. Happy Birthday, Shivji!